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Education And Debate

Obesity, hunger, and agriculture: the damaging role of subsidies

BMJ 2005; 331 doi: (Published 01 December 2005) Cite this as: BMJ 2005;331:1333
  1. Liselotte Schäfer Elinder (, associate professor1
  1. 1 Swedish National Institute of Public Health, 103 52 Stockholm, Sweden
  1. Correspondence to: L Schäfer Elinder
  • Accepted 2 September 2005

Globally, we are producing more food than the population needs. Subsidising overproduction in Europe is affecting the health of people in both Africa and Europe


Being overweight is becoming the norm rather than the exception in most developed countries, and obesity is a serious health problem worldwide.1 Many people see obesity as a lifestyle issue. However, behavioural interventions to prevent obesity in both adults and children have generally been ineffective,2 indicating strong influences beyond individual control. Considerable resources are currently invested in developing drugs to prevent and treat obesity. However, from a societal perspective, prevention of obesity through diet and physical activity should be given priority for both economic and ethical reasons.1 3 Chopra and DarntonHill recently suggested that we need a global strategy on food similar to the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.4 Their suggested actions are mainly aimed at reducing demand for food. But we argue it is equally important to tackle the oversupply of food, driven by agricultural subsidies.

European common agricultural policy

The societal changes causing the worldwide increase in body mass index include mass production of heavily marketed, energy dense foods, globalisation of trade and taste, technological developments in the workplace, a sedentary lifestyle, and the reduction in active transport.5 6Improvements in agricultural productivity over the past decades have facilitated a massive increase in dietary energy intake.

Actually, the main problem for the agricultural sector in many developed countries is overproduction.7 Several studies have suggested that overproduction of food followed by excessive consumption is the prime cause of the increase in body mass index in the United States and elsewhere.8 9 Continued subsidy to stimulate production of food through agricultural policy is therefore paradoxical. Obesity and associated noncommunicable diseases cause costs for health care and lost productivity, and overproduction in agriculture …

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